In Korea’s justice system, foreign sex trafficking victims are treated as criminals

Posted on : 2024-02-20 17:15 KST Modified on : 2024-02-20 17:15 KST
A report by a UN body on the arrest and deportation of women who were duped into engaging in prostitution highlights how victims are revictimized by law enforcement
The interior of a nightclub. (Hankyoreh file photo)
The interior of a nightclub. (Hankyoreh file photo)

“Passport confiscation from the club’s owner.” “Holders of E-6 visas.” “The club owner’s consistent exercise of control.”
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW, listed the above as evidence in its argument that three Filipina women who came to South Korea to work as singers but were arrested for prostitution and ordered with deportation and detention could be seen as human trafficking victims who were forced into prostitution.
According to CEDAW’s decision, the police and government officials at the Seoul Immigration Office were aware of such circumstances, but no one asked the victims about what human rights violations occurred in their exploitative situation.
Throughout the entire ordeal, from the police crackdown on the club to investigations and trials, South Korea’s law enforcement and judicial system considered one sole criterion for judgment: Do the victims really “look” and “act” like victims?
The UN body’s decision states that the three women arrived in South Korea in 2014 after obtaining culture and entertainment work visas, classified as E-6 visas. However, their entertainment management company took them to a club for foreigners.
Instead of performing as singers, the women were forced to provide sexual services to the club’s male patrons, since the owner of the club confiscated their passports and threatened them with deportation.
They were only allowed to leave between the hours of 1 pm and 4:30 pm on Mondays through Thursdays and were forbidden from leaving the premises on peak customer hours on Fridays through Sundays.
The club’s owner used physical force or committed sexual harassment against women who refused to engage in prostitution and didn’t even pay the women their wages when they were due. In effect, they were exploited sexually and economically while being held in a state of captivity.
However, during a police crackdown in March 2015, the victims first testified to the effect that “the voluntary engagement in prostitution [was] based on their own choice.” The women later admitted that they had “given false statements during the first investigation due to threats by the owner and his wife,” according to CEDAW’s report.
In the second investigation, which took place a month after the first, one of the victims retracted her original testimony by stating, “The owner would hit us over the head with liquor glasses or slap us while saying, ‘If you don’t put out, you’ll be kicked out,’ so we had no choice but to comply.”
The police did not conduct further investigations based on that testimony, a fact that can be checked in the reports written by the police during the suspect interrogation process.
The police were already aware of the fact that the club owner had confiscated the victims’ passports during its crackdown. Furthermore, the fact that nightclubs often solicit and coerce women on E-6 visas to engage in prostitution was no secret to anyone.
Despite that, the police did not investigate the possibility of forced prostitution but merely charged the victims with violations of the Act on the Punishment of Arrangement of Commercial Sex Acts and the Immigration Act (activities outside the status of stay).
The victims were sent to the Seoul Immigration Office during the investigation. They were subsequently issued deportation orders and detention orders and were detained at the Hwaseong Immigration Detention Center for 45 days.
Prosecutors also did not believe that the women were forced into prostitution. They cited the fact that the victims did not actively rebel against the club before the police crackdown, even though they could exit the premises outside of work hours and owned mobile phones before ordering a suspension of indictment for charges of violating the Act on the Punishment of Arrangement of Commercial Sex Acts.
The court was no better. The Seoul Administrative Court dismissed the victims’ request to cancel the deportation order, noting that the victims “did not behave proactively by opposing the club owner’s demands they provide sexual services or reporting such behavior to the police,” which it took to mean that “the plaintiffs implicitly agreed to the club owner’s demands [that they engage in prostitution] for their own economic benefit.”
Kim Jong-chul, the attorney at Advocates for Public Interest Law who is representing the victims, commented, “Since investigative agencies believe that victims should don the guise of the most ‘victimized of victims,’ they didn’t see what the victims went through as forced prostitution.”
There are countless reasons victims cannot simply walk away from violent circumstances, but the investigative agencies revictimized the victims by implying that they were in the wrong by not reporting these crimes to the police earlier.
CEDAW observed in its decision on the case that the “stereotypical views applied by the police and courts about the behaviour of trafficked victims prevented the identification of the authors as victims of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.” It was also clear in noting that the “secondary victimization of women by the criminal justice system” had an impact on the women’s access to justice. 

By Oh Se-jin, staff reporter

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